The Incredible Edmonia Lewis: The First Major Sculptor of African American and Native American Heritage

The New Crisis, January/February 1999 | Go to article overview

The Incredible Edmonia Lewis: The First Major Sculptor of African American and Native American Heritage


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT:i This is Edmonia Lewis: Born in the middle of the 19th Century, part Chippewa Indian, part African-American and an orphan. Little is known about this woman who as a child roamed the woods with the Chippewas. Accounts tell of a successful brother who insisted she go to college. He supported her at Oberlin College in Ohio, a major abolitionist center at the time. There her talent for drawing emerged. But it was later in Boston that her desire to become a sculptor took hold. From Boston she journeyed to Rome, home to many expatriate American artists, including several women.

Following a visit to Lewis's studio in Rome, an anonymous American writer wondered in 1867 if Lewis would create a distinctive if not original style in sculpture precisely because of her background She indeed represented a fresh approach to the idealism of the neoclassical sculpture tradition, injecting timely yet universal human rights issues and developing a more emotional, naturalistic style than her contemporaries.

At the height of her popularity in the late 1860s and 1870s, Lewis captivated both Europeans and Americans active in Rome's community of artistic expatriates. …

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